Inside Story

Information warfare

Did the campaign to punish Melbourne’s daily papers for questioning Dan Andrews’s government hit its mark?

Margaret Simons The Media 8 October 2021 2018 words

After the initial violence, Melbourne’s protests against mandatory vaccinations and the two-week shutdown of the construction industry were quieter and less focused. James Ross/AAP Image

When violent protesters took over the streets of Melbourne a fortnight ago, I was following them closely through their social media channels. I saw the “mainstream media” and specific journalists threatened, and talk of marching on the headquarters of the ABC and Nine.

It was frightening and depressing. Some reporters were even attacked in the street. Hidden by the violent actions and rhetoric, though, was another, less explicit message. What the protesters wanted most was basic, accurate information — including about themselves — even as they were attacking those most likely to provide it.

At the order of the police, the livestream from the news media helicopter was cut. (The ban was later overturned by the courts.) The protesters had been using it to find each other, and without it they were lost. Appeals went out on Telegram for people in tall buildings to post shots of the street to help guide them.

Confusion grew about where to meet, and where the police were. Social media channels were filled with conflicting messages and instructions. Almost certainly the groups were being disrupted by misinformation from outsiders, and perhaps also from undercover police.

After the first frightening two days, dwindling groups of protesters roamed the city, sometimes literally in circles, trying to find their fellows and amass sufficient numbers to mount a meaningful protest. In this chaotic and leaderless display of civic unrest, social media could only get them so far.

The lesson? To take effective political action you need a lot of things, not least information you can trust. But that’s the optimistic take; pessimistic conclusions can also be drawn.

While mainstream media organisations needed to hire private security to protect their journalists, others were out in the field without need of protection. These “alternative” media and “citizen journalists” included the Real Rukshan and the far-right Rebel News. Rukshan’s live YouTube feeds of the demonstration even gained the attention of mainstream media, which is one of many ironies. The protesters loved him, chanting his name when he appeared among them. He lacked the access to interview the premier or CFMEU boss John Setka, as he said on his livestream, but he could speak to the people on the streets.

All this is food for reflecting on the widespread hostility to mainstream media, and the difference between professional and “alternative” or “citizen” journalism.

Campaigns against mainstream media outlets from what we might broadly call the left have been a feature of the pandemic, especially in the lockdown capital, Melbourne. (I’m using the words left and right as a crude shorthand. They are inadequate descriptors of the spectrums of beliefs in the groups I am talking about.)

Rather than advocating violence, these campaigns have used social media to encourage people to cancel their subscriptions to the city’s newspapers, the Herald Sun and the Age, because they are perceived to have undermined the Labor state government’s public health measures and failed to take the side of their readers against business figures who want the lockdowns to end.

The longest-standing and most organised campaign has targeted the Herald Sun. It was begun by Dave Milner, a columnist for the Shot — itself an “alternative” outlet, and an offshoot of the Chaser — which has added reportage and commentary to its traditionally satirical repertoire. Milner wrote a series of articles excoriating the Murdoch press for its critical reporting of the first lockdown, and for doing an “appalling job of conveying what life is like here to the rest of the country… making a difficult situation even harder.”

In October last year, Milner drew a comparison with the British city of Liverpool, which successfully boycotted Rupert Murdoch’s Sun after it blamed the survivors of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium crush for the deaths of its ninety-six victims. The Herald Sun was doing something similar, he said, and deserved a similar boycott. “It needs to be socially unacceptable to read and sell the Herald Sun… Cafes shouldn’t stock it. Newsagents shouldn’t sell it. If people see it in the supermarket it should be moved to the toilet paper aisle where it belongs… This is personal now, like it was for Liverpool.”

In what Milner describes as an “organic” response to his articles, the Shot began to sell stickers and other items bearing slogans such as “Fuck Murdoch” and “Don’t Read the Herald Sun.” About 30,000 stickers have been sold, he says, mostly to Victorians. “Don’t Read the Herald Sun” and “Fuck the Herald Sun” remain the top sellers.

More recently, a much lower-key campaign, largely confined to Twitter, has run against the Age in the wake of its publishing what has become known as the “enough” editorial on 1 September this year. The Age called on public health authorities to better factor in the damage caused by lockdowns.

As media academic Denis Muller commented in the Conversation, it received a visceral reaction, feeding into the highly politicised narratives of hope and threat that have become inextricably bound up in the pandemic response in Australia. In a letter to subscribers about the “extraordinary” response, editor Gay Alcorn acknowledged that some people had cancelled their subscriptions, but said they were outweighed by new subscribers.

To its credit, the Age published letters to the editor slamming the editorial as well as boosting it, and also republished Muller’s piece.

I hope you’re getting the picture here. Mainstream media outlets no longer have the field to themselves. They are still key players, but in a messy, ratty, vibrant and sometimes frightening ecosystem. They are constantly being nipped and jabbed. At the extremes, during the far-right protests on Melbourne’s streets, their reporters have been threatened and physically attacked.

The Age’s “enough” editorial sparked a Twitter campaign kicked off by the anonymous @PRGuy17, in which people were urged to cancel their subscriptions. @PRGuy17 has been one of Twitter’s most prominent supporters of premier Dan Andrews and the #istandwithDan hashtag. (He did not respond when I sought comment.)

So have the campaigns calling on people to cancel their subscriptions had any impact in the world outside the silos of social and alternative media? The anecdotes are many, but the truth is hard to determine.

There’s no perfect way of measuring news media readership across all platforms, but the industry has made various attempts. This year the Enhanced Media Metrics Australia system, or EMMA, launched with fanfare eight years ago, was dropped and replaced by Think News Brands, or TNB, which uses data compiled by Roy Morgan. Whereas the EMMA data was published quarterly, the TNB figures have so far been available only in boosterish reports that don’t break down readership by individual masthead.

On request, though, TNB provided me with these figures for news readership among people fourteen and older at two points in the pandemic:

Herald Sun
June 2020: 4.593 million
June 2021: 4.719 million

June 2020: 5.913 million
June 2021: 5.963 million

Not much encouragement there for the cancellation campaigners — and this pattern accords with research by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre.

But I don’t think the TNB figures give us a definitive answer to the question of whether the mainstream media are pissing off their subscribers. They are based on the assumption that the outlets’ readership is a certain multiple of the numbers of paid subscriptions. News Corporation’s most recent quarterly earnings statement shows the Herald Sun has 146,026 paid subscribers, combined print and digital, as of 30 June 2021. The non-subscription paid circulation of its print masthead — through newsstands and newsagents — which wasn’t declared this year, was 213,964 in 2020.

As for the Age, the TNB–Roy Morgan report claims 5.9 million readers over the age of fourteen, which is about 400,000 more than Victoria’s total over-fourteen population.

Given these outlets are paywalled, how can they have readerships so much larger than their subscription and other paid-circulation base? Asked to explain, Roy Morgan offered “a couple of things to consider.” These included out-of-state readership on digital platforms, and the fact that some “off-platform aggregations,” such as Apple News, don’t have paywalls. The figures also included readership in cafes, offices and the like — though that would surely be insignificant during lockdown.

Even taking all that on board, I regard these figures as rubbery and optimistic. A reader revolt could well be hidden within them.

When I sought comment from the Age and News Corp about the impact of the campaigns, a News Corp spokesperson told me that paid subscriptions for the company’s Australian mastheads were growing strongly — from 647,600 in June last year to 810,000 this year — “demonstrating how strongly our journalism resonates with mainstream Australia.”

The editor of the Age, Gay Alcorn, sent a longer and more thoughtful response. She acknowledged that the paper was less than perfect. “Do we sometimes publish a poor headline? Yes. Do we sometimes do a story that I worry later was not quite there? Of course.” She said:

The accusation seems to be that anything critical or questioning of state government Covid policy is inherently undermining of public health messages and is therefore irresponsible to publish. It has been strange at times. A piece by Greens candidate Celeste Liddle questioning the Victorian curfew was attacked as irresponsible to publish — I am not sure most people who attacked the headline even read the piece. A piece by Jon Faine — who our conservative readers say is pro-Andrews — was attacked because he suggested that lockdown fatigue was real and the government had to change its language to reflect that. This was supposedly an example of Age hostility to Andrews.

I think our health and science coverage has been second to none. Our state political coverage is the best in Victoria. We have striven to go deeper, with Explainers and Q and As on complex issues. We have covered in depth the vaccine rollout, the long-term impact on the CBD economically and socially, the equity divide revealed by the pandemic, the impact on universities, the civil rights issues, Australians stranded overseas, and many more. Recently, we sought reader questions about what they wanted to know about the roadmap and were inundated with questions and we continue to answer them. That is useful journalism, essential during these times.

And in an increasingly polarised media landscape, she added, the Age was “different” because it sometimes challenged its readers’ prejudices.

This is an important point. Most professional journalists, asked to distinguish themselves from “citizen journalists” and alternative media, would reach for concepts such as adherence to the facts and impartiality.

But what are we to make of those claims when faced with front-page headlines from the Herald Sun such as “Premier’s Grab for Absolute Power” and “Dictator Dan no longer just a nickname.” The paper has run good, straight reporting on the pandemic as well, but at times it seems to believe that taking a provocative and partisan stance is just as much a part of its business model as it is for the Real Rukshan.

The Age has not been so partisan, but it too has sometimes mixed reportage with opinion and failed to adequately correct errors, including on public health matters.

All this means the line between professional and partisan “alternative” media is less clearly drawn than journalists like to pretend. Which is another way of saying that — even as business models erode and attacks mount — the mainstream needs to do better.

The University of Canberra research shows that trust in media among its survey respondents rose to 53 per cent at the beginning of the pandemic — a record figure. By June this year, though, just 43 per cent of respondents said they trusted the news media. Meanwhile the number of heavy news consumers had fallen back to four points below pre-pandemic levels.

These figures suggest that readers are indeed turning away. That should worry us all. As those protesters found, we all need information on which we can rely; without it, we are going round in circles, hardly knowing who or where we are. •

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.